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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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Pitt baseball players stand in the dugout during a game against Virginia Tech on March 24 at the Petersen Sports Complex.
Pitt baseball shows promise in weekend series in Texas
By Dylan Grace, Staff Writer • 12:32 am

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Pitt baseball players stand in the dugout during a game against Virginia Tech on March 24 at the Petersen Sports Complex.
Pitt baseball shows promise in weekend series in Texas
By Dylan Grace, Staff Writer • 12:32 am

‘The city becomes your classroom’: Pitt offers multimedia literature class, Secret Pittsburgh

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Carrington Bryan | Staff Illustrator

Secret Pittsburgh, a literature class at Pitt taught by Elise Ryan, makes the city its classroom as students explore surrounding areas and create a multimedia project that’s open to the public — which now includes a podcast. 

“I feel like, as a Pitt student, you really explore Oakland. But there’s a lot that you’re missing outside of Oakland,” Taya Hoetzlein-Sirman, third-year senior history and political science major, said. “Pittsburgh has so much to offer. I really wanted to dig in and explore that, and this class was an awesome opportunity to do that.”

Secret Pittsburgh is a four-hour, once-a-week class where students participate in off-site learning for six or seven weeks during the semester. Jessica FitzPatrick, curriculum lead of Secret Pittsburgh and director of the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design Program, highlighted the duality of the class’ educational content, calling it the “magic school bus field trip class.”

“We want students to go out into the world and think about place and literature and its effect,” FitzPatrick said. “The city becomes your classroom, where community organizers, nonprofits and organizations become your collaborative teachers … Secret Pittsburgh is a class that takes up the idea of experiential learning.”

Each semester, the class structure is adapted to the particular interests of the students, and the “creative output” is revamped to consider different skill sets, FitzPatrick said. The classroom’s archive was first expanded to a digital medium via a website put together by students.

“Every time we teach it, there’s always a question of, ‘How can we push it forward? Who’s in the class? What are they interested in?’” FitzPatrick said. “The website, as it currently exists, actually was a capstone project for two DNID students, one of whom took the class.”

The primary push from solely a website medium to an audio podcast format was initiated by Elise Ryan, a teaching assistant professor and experiential learning coordinator for the English department, in fall of 2023. She envisioned students gaining “a new experience in the course” accompanied by a “new skill set.”

“It was time for a new wing, or a new arm, of the class,” Ryan said, “I think of Secret Pittsburgh as really a media environment at this point, and it makes sense that podcasting would be next. I think students like listening to things — maybe sometimes more than reading about them — so it felt like the next right step pedagogically.”

Ryan expected that most students coming into the class “would have no experience with audio.” This was the case for Shelby Thayer, a senior psychology major, who had “never done anything like it before,” but still found Secret Pittsburgh to be a great elective for her.

“When we found out that we were doing a podcast project in the first place, and not essays, I was a little bit nervous — but we had a really great class,” Thayer said. “Everybody was really into the whole thing, not just their group’s project … I was excited to go in [to class] and try to make the episode sound good.”

Nicholas Coles, a previous teacher of the class, taught during Secret Pittsburgh’s transition to Drupal, a platform that enables website creation. The advanced digital medium of the class was adopted as a response to the “transforming” realm of media. 

“What we think of literature has been, for a long time, transforming,” Coles said, “It’s not only those words on a page, but also all other modes in which we construct our stories and share them with others. For me, Secret Pittsburgh is out front doing all of that work.”

Coles, who retired in the spring of 2020, said “it was a wonderful teaching experience.” As he reflected on his time teaching the course and the platform used to display the classroom’s learning, he commended the class’s further expansion to a podcast.

“What has now happened — that I love, and there was no hint of this when I was doing it — is the podcasts,” Coles said. ”It makes so much sense to me to explore this form in which we now experience a lot of narratives, whether they be nonfictional or literary or whatever. It’s a way that we take stories in these days, and the students will be learning all the stuff we used to do, plus this.”

The connection between Secret Pittsburgh’s podcast and the outside world changes the way this class compares to more traditional literary classes, according to Coles and Ryan. Although students still practice skills such as reading and writing, the community outreach forms relationships and understandings of the outside world. 

“I think the other thing that students [get] out of a course like Secret Pittsburgh is an understanding of how a place informs your thinking and your emotional reactions, that places are not neutral, that they have stories, and that the way we tell the stories of these places is contributing to them,” Ryan said.

The public aspect of this course, which is accessible to not only Pitt members but all internet users, reminds students of a “broader audience” and “an ethical demand,” Ryan said. The publicity of this course and its on-site experiences provide representation for lesser-known parts of Pittsburgh. 

“In terms of the folks that we work with, I hope that their institutions, their communities and their concerns are more seen and can reach a broader public through this particular class,” Ryan said. “I hope that [people who find the website or podcast] will go and explore more things.”



About the Contributor
Briana Bindus, Staff Writer